The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou

Directed by Wes Anderson. Starring Bill Murray, Owen Wilson, Cate Blanchett, and Anjelica Huston. Rated PG.

It didn't seem obvious before, at least not to me, but Wes Anderson's films are always about family. Sure, The Royal Tenenbaums made that literal, but in their own ways, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore were about leaving home and finding it again. In The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the writer-director (coscripting with Noah Baumbach) hasn't lost his sense of detached whimsy; in fact, he carries it like Linus hauls his blanket. But the film is also drenched with nostalgia for the safety and wonder of childhood, as well as a feeling that adventure is just another name for following in your daddy's footsteps.

Bill Murray has been an offbeat older-man type in two of Anderson's previous titles--even at his weirdest, he's a more reassuring figure than James Caan's con man in Bottle Rocket. Here he's almost the whole show, and it's hard to imagine anyone else making as much of the titular, Jacques Cousteau--
inspired character. (The movie playfully disavows any connection with the French oceanographer, but when it's all over you remember a tragic event in Cousteau's own life.)

Steve Zissou, increasingly ridiculous with his red watch cap and deadpan "scientist" delivery, is a media-savvy self-promoter saddened to see that the public is no longer very interested in the seagoing adventures he once purveyed in National Geographic--style documentaries. Has the world changed, or has old Stevie simply lost his edge? "I haven't been at my best this decade," he says, apologizing to his wife (Anjelica Huston), who is the brains--and the money--behind his organization.

Lately, she's been threatening to go back to her first husband (Jeff Goldblum), an absurdly wealthy rival with a spotless ship and a crew that makes the Hitler Youth look like sloppy brunettes. The crew of Steve's ship, the Belafonte, are sloppy brunettes--inasmuch as they are differentiated at all. Standouts include an emotionally needy German--and when was the last time Willem Dafoe was the funniest guy around?--a resident geek (Noah Taylor), and a Brazilian first mate (City of God's Seu Jorge) who is terrible at everything except singing David Bowie songs in Portuguese.

That last bit of high concept, great on paper and perfectly executed even when run straight into the ground, is a prime example of Anderson's obsessive-reductive sense of humour. He seems to think that oddness is its own reward, and the candy-coloured sea creatures who drift through the tale, in animated segments, certainly do delight. But they are not rooted in anything like a real story, so neither the jokes nor the many visually stunning moments get to resonate in any meaningful way.

What does stick, at least a little, is the central theme of looking for a lost father, or, in reverse, someone to whom one can pass on earlier accomplishments. This involves a naive Air Kentucky pilot (always engaging Anderson foil Owen Wilson) who one day shows up on the Belafonte, claiming to be Steve's son. Arriving around the same time is a pregnant journalist (Cate Blanchett, doing a downmarket variation of her Katharine Hepburn turn in The Aviator) who gets a whole Oedipal thing happing on the rust bucket.

The film, which includes a three-legged dog, surprisingly menacing pirates, and pop-up-like cutaways of the ship, was mostly made in Italy. Sometimes, it suggests Anderson's attempt to make his own 8 1/2, with the flailing old sea captain standing in for the overly cautious young director. He could do worse than to take Federico Fellini as a father figure, I guess--even if The Life Aquatic actually plays out more like Flipper on acid.